It seems the future of 3-D printing is limited only by one's imagination. The process is already used to build—layer by layer—jewelry, toys and a variety of prosthetics, with some predicting that additive fabrication of space station spare parts and even food isn't far behind. Despite this promise, design flaws can greatly impact the quality of 3-D-printed items, leaving some objects unable to support their own weight or too fragile to serve their intended purpose.
A team of engineers from Adobe's Advanced Technology Labs and Purdue University aims to fix that by adding a new dimension to 3-D printing: structural analysis software that finds potential points of failure and recommends a fix. This could include increasing the thickness of a particular area to improve its strength, hollowing out another area to reduce weight or even adding struts or other support structures for stability.
3-D-printed objects begin as digital files. A printer then painstakingly builds the objects through an additive process—with some layers as thin as 0.1 millimeters (100 microns)—in a variety of materials including plastic, silver, ceramic and even titanium. Many printers use a high-power laser to fuse small particles of these materials together—a technique called laser sintering. Others build items using layers of liquid polymer that's hardened using UV light.
The structural analysis software examines the initial digital file in search of certain characteristics, for example a "grip position" where someone is likely to place stress on an object while holding it, according to the engineers, who presented their research last month at the SIGGRAPH 2012 computer graphics conference. Once the software has identified potential points of failure, it makes recommendations to shore up those areas.
3-D printing has gained popularity as a way of leveling the playing field for inventors—you don't need to be a professional engineer or have a lot of expensive manufacturing equipment and simulation software to turn an idea into a prototype. Brooklyn-based MakerBot, whose relatively inexpensive desktop 3-D printers have been at the fore of this do-it-yourself movement, on Wednesday introduced two new models with improved resolution and a larger build space (pdf). The $2,199 Replicator 2 can create objects that are 37-percent larger by volume and nearly triples its predecessor's printing precision. The Replicator 2X, intended for more experimental works, will sell for $2,799 when it debuts next year.
Adobe and Purdue's software promises to further this spirit of entrepreneurship by helping inexperienced designers avoid obvious mistakes and improve their ideas before they even reach the printer.
Image of Bedrich Benes, an associate professor of computer graphics at Purdue University, courtesy of Purdue University/Mark Simons
Video courtesy of Purdue University High Performance Computer Graphics Lab